Thursday, 26 February 2009

When is a retelling not a retelling.......Adele Geras

The proofs of my forthcoming novel, Dido, are here now and very lovely they look, too. They're uncorrected but still very beautifully produced with a pretty cover somewhere between aqua and sky-blue. Together with the proofs, there have been some press releases, mentions in the Bookseller etc for which I am most grateful. However (and this applies also to my novels Troy and Ithaka) almost without exception these books are referred to as 'retellings' when they are something else entirely.

I know what retellings are because I've done several. I retold some fairy tales for a book which was most beautifully illustrated by Louise Brierley. This was called Beauty and the Beast and other stories. I also retold The Six Swan Brothers for David Ficklings excellent series of stories sold for £1, way back in 1998. I've retold Sleeping Beauty for another gorgeous edition illustrated by Christian Birmingham. I've also retold the stories of ballets and operas, so I have done quite a lot of it one way and another.

When you retell something, what you're doing is: taking an existing story, one which is moreover quite well known and you are not changing a single thing. My job, as I saw it in all the books mentioned above, was to read the existing narrative and tell it again in my own words. I tried, obviously, to make these the best words I could possibly find for the task but they didn't add or subtract anything from the known version.

In Troy and Ithaka and now in the forthcoming Dido, I've done something else altogether. Each of these books is a story about invented characters in their teens who just happen to coexist alongside events and characters taken from Homer or Virgil. In the case of Ithaka, the well-known stories of the Odyssey ( the Cyclops, Circe, etc) have been reduced to tapestries being made by Penelope. In this kind of book which isn't a retelling, I change things all the time. In Ithaka, for instance, I've made Penelope, ( whose name has been a byword for fidelity throughout the centuries) not faithful at all. In other words, I've played fast and loose with the events/accounts Homer gives in the Odyssey. In Troy, the war and its doings are a background to the concerns of the women and girls who are being beseieged. The Gods appear as characters in my story but I've dressed them according to my desires and given them attributes I have made up for them. Poseidon stinks of fish and like a fish, he has scaly skin. Ares wears a long black cloak and a red-crested helmet. Hermes is practically a skeleton, Aphrodite leaves a fragrance behind her like roses and almond blossom and so forth.

The main narrative in each book concerns my invented characters. The action is seen through their eyes. They are observers of the most important (Homeric or Virgilian) actors in the drama. I have made it all up, honestly. My stories did not exist before I wrote them. That's why I'm so keen that the books shouldn't bedescribed as 'retellings'. There's nothing wrong with retellings, of course, but they are not original in any way other than in their language. I hope very much that my novels do have something about them that wasn't there before and which Homer or Virgil would never in a million years have thought of writing.

The heroine of Dido is Elissa, and it's her figure that Alison Jay has put in the foreground of her lovely cover image. I hope all who read the book will enjoy it, and go on to find the quite different versions available in Book 1V of Virgil's Aeneid and in Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.

10 comments:

adele said...

Well,I did go in to put the apostrophe before the s of Ficklings and to put a space between 'be' and 'described' and I changed them fine...but then I was afraid to press 'Publish' in case the post appeared twice. I'll get the hang of this blogging lark one day.

Nick Green said...

Yes, perfect, apart from being a day early!

Only kidding. :-)

bookwitch said...

Oops.

We've had a lemons versus stags day here, Adèle, with someone else reading Dido before me! Anyway, he has reassured himself that stag hunting was OK.

Mary Hoffman said...

How maddening for you Adèle! I was glad to see it highlighted in the Bookseller though. And real fans won't be put off. but is does diminish all your hard imaginative work.

Anne Cassidy said...

Didn't Shakespeare retell a few stories? It didn't do him any harm as I recall.

Ms. Yingling said...

If it makes you feel any better, I never sell Troy to students as a retelling. As you said, it's a story set at a particular time, with similar characters. I think that Virgil would be pleased-- the Greek and Roman authors certainly created their own tales. I will look forward to seeing this title in the US!

Katherine Langrish said...

Went to see Purcell's Dido and Aeneas very recently (in the middle of all the snow) performed in an extremely cold Cotswalds church where they'd clearly gone round the village borrowing electric heaters (lots of flame-and-coal effect convection heaters, barely stirring the air!) I loved the witches. Now I'm looking forward to your version, Adele.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I'm with you there Adele. I think the fault is often with the publishers who use the word re-telling when marketing the book and sometimes even manage to insert it slyly into the blurb when your back is turned. If someone can find any reference to Marco Polo mentioning that Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar drank bitter herb tea while they rested in their tent escaping dust devils, waiting for the sun to go down, please let me know. But until that time I like to think the foibles I choose for my characters are my own invention and not a retelling.

adele said...

Thanks, everyone...and very nice to hear from Ms Yingling in the USA.

LynnHC said...

Quite ridiculous. So any story that includes 'known' characters is now a re-telling, is it? Preposterous!

Grumbling angrily on your behalf.